Jamie's Sundance Diary

Day 10 - Saturday 28 January 2006

This is the way the Sundance Film Festival ends – not with a bang but a whimper.

Bowling up to the Racquet Club at 6.30pm for the Awards Night Ceremony, Total Film took a seat and stared, transfixed, at the montage of clips from the festival’s golden oldies. Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Napoleon Dynamite, sex, lies and videotape, Donnie Darko, Memento, Buffalo 66, Boys Don’t Cry… talk about whetting the appetite. And while this year’s festival paled against such luminous titles, it at least gave us the harrowing, affecting Half Nelson. Bring on the prizes.

As with most awards shows, the ceremony passed in a stop-start fashion, any chance of momentum body-checked by the winners’ rambling thank you lists and seeming inability to make a graceful exit. No matter that the eight previous recipients had all started to walk off stage right, only to be halted by a nice, smiley lady and ushered off to the left… number nine hooked a right all the same.

The full list of award winners is too long and obscure to go into here [that's where us web techies come in useful - here you go...], but suffice to say that documentary Iraq In Fragments (voices from the other side) did rather nicely while coruscating drama A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (writer recalls his misspent youth in 80s Queens) picked up the Dramatic Directing Award for Dito Montiel and also nabbed the acting honours for its ensemble cast (‘They blew my mind,’ gasped juror Terrence Howard). Hard to argue with that one given the angsty veracity on show, but it was a shame to see Half Nelson’s Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps – sensational as the 13-year-old pupil who befriends her crack-addict teacher – go empty handed.

Unfortunately it was a taste of things to come, Half Nelson getting the full elbow when it came to gathering trophies. Just how Quinceanera, an enjoyable but perfunctory feelgood flick about a Latino girl getting preggers on the even of her 15th birthday, beat Ryan Fleck’s abrasive, moving drama is a mystery of vast proportions. Quinceanera is the kind of film that you expect to win the audience prize (it did) and go home happy. To scoop the big one (Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic) is like The Full Monty winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. Still, scan the list of previous Sundance winners (and losers) and such a decision begins to make sense: it seems the juries shy away from films that are too accomplished, preferring to award ‘promising’ movies with rough edges – a badge of their low-budget, indie credentials.

The closing night party was also something of a let-down, the atmosphere never quite buzzing and the celebrity head count – usually decent – at a disappointing low. Jury member Alexander Payne was briefly glimpsed posing for photos but that, the cast of Somebodies aside, was it. Total Film made the most of it by quaffing free champagne and wine until the trays ran dry, then headed for the Yarrow Hotel, home to so many press screenings over the past 10 days, for a nightcap. Awaiting transport in the bitter cold at 2am, the thought of catching a flight back to the UK in 11 hours time was a welcome one. It’s been a blast with some good movies and great memories, but like Dorothy once so wisely said, there’s no place like home. Well, ‘til next year anyway…

Day 9 - Friday 27 January 2006

The festival’s beginning to wind up now, LA’s movers and shakers flying back to the sunny City of Angels as the swag tents – shelters hosting company reps giving away everything from cell phones to washing machines (but only to famous people, unfortunately) - come down on Main Street.

Yet while it’s now far less effort to get a table for dinner, attending the movies hasn’t got any easier. Arriving 45 minutes early for the 8.30am showing of Sherrybaby at the Raquet Club, maximum attendance 602, the queue was already snaking back on itself. Thankfully it was worth the wait, Maggie Gyllenhaal giving one of the performances of the festival as a former drug and alcohol addict who’s now clean and out on parole, desperate to jump-start her life and reconnect with her six-year-old daughter. Let’s just say it doesn’t all go to plan.

Shot in 24 days by former documentary maker Laurie Collyer, Sherrybaby posseses much the same themes as the best film in Dramatic Competition, Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson. It’s also one of several stabs at social realism that pepper this year’s line-up (Steel City, Come Early Morning, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints…), the crop of tyro-writer/directors determinded to tell it as it is with not a meteor in sight. That it remains urgent and affecting despite the repetition of theme and form is down to Collyer’s acute eyes and ears, and Gyllenhaal’s admirable fearlessness in giving a raw-nerve portrayal of a struggling woman who badly needs help but is too proud to ask. To hear some of the frankly stupid criticisms floating around afterwards – “I have no interest in watching someone take drugs” was one; “Why would she do that? I just wanted to slap her…” was another – is to lose faith in cinema audiences. Is it any wonder Hollywood just keeps on serving us the same old explosions, car chases and stylised gun fights until we learn to judge films largely on the merit of their CGI?

Like Sherrybaby, Come Early Morning features a Hollywood actress (Ashley Judd) roughing it in a downbeat indie pic, and, like Gyllenhaal, she plays a woman trying to right her topsy-turvy life. Removed from her family and seemingly incapable of courting any form of intimacy, Lucy is stuck in a cycle of boozy one-night-stands followed by quick exits come early morning. It looks like she might finally exit her spiral down the plughole of self-destruction when she meets sensitive new guy in town Cal (Jeffrey Donovan)… but can she handle a caring, giving adult relationship?

Written and directed by Joey Lauren Adams, interviewed earlier in this diary, Morning feels authentic enough given it’s set in her home state of Arkansas as good ol’ country music floods out the jukebox. Whether it has anything new to say is a moot point, Adams steadily joining dramatic dots linked a hundred times before, but it comes from the heart and that’s as good a place as any.

Regular readers of the magazine will know that our caring, considerate, just-so-damn-huggable reviewers are not in the habit of giving away movies’ endings, and your sweet-as-apple-pie-reporter is not about to change that by revealing if our Ashley finds happiness or solitude in Come Early Morning. But there’s another reason: ignorance. That’s right, this is one case where the words “clue” and “haven’t got a bloody” apply, Total Film having to bolt from the theatre with 20 minutes left to make it across town for the screening of Michel Gondry’s hot, hot, hot The Science Of Sleep.

Why mention it when most journos would simply wing it? Because it broke the habit of a lifetime, finally marking a breakthrough in this writer’s pathological inability to walk out of a film or switch off a DVD (or, growing up, VHS) no matter how terrible the movie is. After wasting hundreds – nay, thousands – of hours soaking up every second of movies like Children Of The Corn IV: The Gathering, Son Of The Mask and, shudder, The English Patient, a life far less sad, obsessive and, let’s be frank, wasted is finally on the cards.

Gondry’s follow-up to Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind first screened on Sunday and has been one of the talking points of the festival, jaded hacks beaming like Errol Flynn at an orgy whenever the title is so much as mentioned. Not hard to see why, the innovative (read: bonkers) Frenchman this time going for broke as he conjures up scene after scene of gorgeous, startling, amusing imagery, at once crazily imaginative and freakily surreal.

To talk of plot is a nonsense, but it kind of, sort of, maybe involves Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Mexican living in France who pursues his dream of being a great artist while falling in love with his next door neighbour (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and hosting a nutzoid TV show inside his own head even as his unfettered dreams forever bleed into his everyday life so viewers are never quite sure of what is real and what is imagined and must therefore be alert and open-minded, constantly prepared for the protagonist to suddenly float through the window and drift across a sky dotted with cotton wool clouds as a town made up of toilet tubes and crepe paper bustles below. Got that? Good.

Sleep is sci-fi of the inner-space variety: Tarkovsky’s Solaris if the snail-paced director had first swallowed a fistful of pills, washed ‘em down with a gallon of red bull and then watched The Magic Roundabout, Japanese game shows and Russian animated shorts. On loop. That it appeals to film critics fed on so many formulaic movies each and every year is really no surprise, but it’ll be interesting to see if Sleep can mimic Eternal Sunshine’s mainstream success given the relationship between Bernal and Gainsbourg fails to flutter hearts like that of Winslet and Carrey. Warner Independent Pictures obviously think it can, splashing a cool $6 million on the film’s rights within hours of its Sunday night screening.

The last movie of Total Film’s day – and, indeed, festival – was Quinceanera, a feelgood crowdpleaser with just enough grit under its fingernails to stop it being schmaltzy. Playing to deafening ovations, it could, just could, do a My Big Fat Greek Wedding and become a crossover hit. Set in Echo Park, Los Angeles, the very neighbourhood where filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland live, it concerns the build-up to Magdelena’s (Emily Rios) 15th birthday party – the occasion of her Quinceanera, a Latina celebration whereby a girl becomes a woman. What should be the happiest day of her life starts to look like a date with doom when she falls pregnant, with her father kicking her out as the entire street starts to whisper behind her back. And, sometimes, in front of it too.

Stirred into the mix is a sub-plot involving Magdalena’s gay older brother, Carlos (Jesse Garcia). Also rejected by his father, the disparate siblings at least find each other, their ostracism bringing them together as they form a surrogate family under the roof of their great-granduncle Thomas (Chalo Gonzalez). Quinceanera is a busy, bustling comedy-drama, the filmmakers deriving great energy from the clashing cultures of Echo Park. Once home to Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson, the moneyed locale became a Latina neighbourhood post WWII and is now undergoing gentrification. On one level the film is a realist depiction of a frenetic environment – the directors playfully call it a “neo-sink drama” – but on another it’s pure entertainment, laughs forever bubbling just beneath the surface. There are stronger films playing in the Dramatic Competition to be sure, but this is built with audiences’ enjoyment firmly in mind. It’s no surprise it walked off with both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic competition.

Heading back to write this column on a freezing, snowy night, the journey halted by a prolonged wait for a bus under a flickering gas lamp, Total Film’s ice-block feet acted as a reminder to give special mention to the volunteers who enable this festival to run. Motivated by a love of movies and a desire to be involved at any cost (or not, as the case most certainly is), 1200 people offer their services for free. Some are aspiring actors or filmmakers who just want the chance to meet someone, anyone, who can give them a break. Others are cinephiles, pure and simple, willing to work like shivering dogs in return for free admittance to a handful of films. The volunteers working the bus stops are the real heroes, turning four hour shifts on the roadside to ensure flustered filmgoers take the right bus to the right location. Imagine taking an ice bath for an evening and you’ll get the picture. Heroic.

Day 8 - Thursday 26 January 2006

So much for the bronzed-as-a-Greek-god look. The sun is gone, the snow is back and the white-as-a-junkie-polar-bear image is here to bloody well stay.

Crawling out of bed with the hangover from hell, it is only sheer guts, determination and professional dedication that get your heroic reporter onto the bus to the Holiday Village Hotel, venue for the press screening of The Night Listener. By now Neil Marshall and his leading ladies – Total Film’s partners in last night’s alcohol-fuelled crime - will be 35,000 feet in the air. At least they’ll have the air sickness bags and the restrooms (god, this trip has lasted too long; Total Film now speaks of cell phones, sidewalks, trucks, windshields and over-easy eggs… and calls every group of two or more people ‘you guys’) at their disposal. Here on earth the crowded, rattling bus offers no such comforts, and right now the option of vomiting into a laptop bag seems a very real possibility.

To say too much about The Night Listener, playing in the Premieres section and already picked up by Miramax Films for $3 million, would be to do it a disservice. Suffice to say it’s a low-octane, high-atmos mystery-thriller that’s not a million miles away from M Night Shyamalan’s murky offerings. Robin Williams is in serious mode (the beard’s a giveaway) as Gabriel Noone, a renowned writer and late-night radio host who loses his hunger for spinning tales when his partner (Bobby Cannavale) moves out. Then he’s handed a manuscript penned by Pete (Rory Culkin), a damaged young listener. Noone’s passion is reignited, the raw prose - a shocking tale of physical abuse – offering an honesty and immediacy that’s sorely absent from his own tall tales. It’s inevitable that our hirsute hero should become emotionally involved in Pete’s plight, striking up a phone relationship with both the boy and his guardian (Toni Collette), but everything that follows is anything but predictable…

Loosely based on real-life events that must again be omitted here for fear of giving the games away, Patrick Stettner’s eerie chiller keeps audiences chasing answers like a greyhound pursues a rabbit at the racetrack. Well, at least until the hour mark, at which point the mechanical bunny kind of breaks down and anyone with a semi-spry mind can latch onto the climax and, to mix those pesky metaphors, shake it like a rag doll. Those with more sluggish synapses will catch up come the end, mind, Stettner unwisely offering a coda that unravels any lingering enigmas. Still, The Night Listener is lovingly crafted and makes for enjoyable, compelling viewing, not least because Collette’s haughty heroine is knowingly comprised of Hitchcockian DNA.

Boosted by coffee, lots of coffee, the idea of sitting through Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated (100 whole minutes in an inflexible chair with no head rest) suddenly seemed like no big deal. And so it proved, Kirby’s crowd-pleasing documentary tickling Total Film into emitting a series of hesitant yelps followed by booming belly laughs. Think of that scene in Sullivan’s Travels where miserable old Joel McCrea sits down with the rest of the prison inmates to watch a Disney ‘toon and winds up guffawing his guts up. It was just like it, only Total Film was sat with a roomful of international journos – a far more disreputable crowd.

Dick’s doc goes for the jugular of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in much the same boisterous, bullying manner that Michael Moore went after George Bush Jr in Fahrenheit 9/11. Established in 1968 to cope with New Hollywood’s determination to push the boundaries of screen decency, the MPAA is comprised of ‘ordinary’ American parents. Their job is to watch movies and grant them a rating ranging from G for General Audiences to the much-dreaded NC-17, meaning no one aged 17 or under can attend.

Fine. Well, that is until you consider this is a secret panel operating with zero transparency and the same amount of accountability. Or that it would appear to favour studios over independents, its lack of precise rules or guidelines meaning the goal posts can be moved… and are, again and again. Or that it’s happy to pass senseless violence unchecked but has a heart attack every time flesh is pleasured on the screen, especially if that flesh belongs to a woman (boys can undoubtedly get off more than gals) or, gasp, members of the same sex.

Interviewing various talking heads who have seen their work gouged by the MPAA’s scissors at one time or another (John Waters, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Kimberly Peirce, Darren Aronofsky), Kirby also follows through on his inspired idea of hiring a PI to unmask the classifiers… for what it’s worth. The result is a wildly entertaining doc that’s as biased as hell but at least exposes the censors’ consistent inconsistencies. Where it misses a trick is in not casting its eye beyond the MPAA to the exhibitors and advertisers. After all, getting an NC-17 certificate really wouldn’t be so deadly if it wasn’t for the fact that it means most theatre chains won’t show your movie and most papers/magazines won’t accept your ads. It’s this lack of awarneness and access that really kills the film, not the fact that a bunch of 13 year olds in Texas can’t get an eyeful from the back row.

Attending the late-night screening of the buzzy-as-a-bee The Darwin Awards, Total Film was subjected to the indignity of those damn queue attendants adding a new call to their previously reported fave holler of, “We’re loading… loading theatre one!” Slipping out to the ‘restroom’ minutes before the movie started, hand stamped to assure readmittance, a sly attempt at an unfussy return was scuppered by a door-woman taking one look at the proffered stamp and screaming, “WE HAVE A RE-ENTRY… RE-ENTRY COMING THROUGH!” Cue 200 pairs of eyes following yours truly making an undignified shuffle back to seat.

No need to worry: the film was so bad that it wasn’t long before everyone in the audience had joined in with the cringing. At its heart is a truly appalling performance by Joseph “Shakespeare In Love was a fluke” Fiennes as a genius detective whose aptitude for profiling crims means he always gets his man. Unless he sees a spot of blood, in which case he faints. It’s this hemophobia that leads to his bumbling the arrest of a serial killer and subsequent dismissal from the SFPD. No worries: he’ll use his unique talents working for an insurance firm, sniffing out fraudsters and saving the firm millions. It’ll also allow him to indulge his pet hobby for The Darwin Awards, posthumous prizes awarded to those who have suffered accidental deaths of the most idiotic variety (the idea being that they’re improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it). If Fiennes’ rookie can successfully profile these prats, he’ll save the firm still further millions.

A misjudged comedy that buries a great idea amid a snakes’ nest of sub-plots and a structure so clumsy it should receive a Darwin Award itself, Finn Taylor’s teeth-grinding film pips Stay for Total Film’s own irreverent prize: Worst Fucking Film Of The Festival. The only positive that comes out of it is the return of the still-mesmerising Winona Ryder, here playing Fiennes’ tough-cookie insurance partner and – yawn – eventual love interest. But, as plus marks go, that’s your lot. Just how it got picked up at the festival is a mystery… as is Metallica’s decision to not only allow footage of a gig to be played in the movie but to actually ‘act’ in it as well. Ouch.

On a sadder note, it’s a shame that The Darwin Awards also attracted a ghoulish quality thanks to the appearance of Chris Penn in a small role. Screening a couple of days after his premature death, his was the name on most people’s lips as they filed into the theatre. Total Film suggests it would be better to remember him for his live-wire turn in a film that graced Sundance ’92. Now what was it called? Oh yeah, that’s right: Reservoir Dogs.

Day 7 - Wednesday 25 January 2006

Miracle of miracles, the sun came out today and Total Film could face the day with an open coat. A couple more days of this and the cheeks may even get little colour. Yes, it’s official – the white-as-an-albino-corpse look is on the way out; expect the bronzed-as-a-Greek-god image to settle into place by Saturday.

Busy day today – four movies and a ridiculously messy evening with Neil Marshall and two of The Descent’s leading lasses, Shauna Macdonald and Nora-Jane Noone. Shauna once told Total Film that she could drink the Dog Soldiers boys under the table. She proved it in Cannes and now she’s only gone and done it again. To say this lady can hold her liquor is like saying Ronaldinho can play a bit.

Let’s start with the movies. Beginning with a 9am screening and tumbling straight into an 11.30 followed by a 2.30, your bleary-eyed reviewer was feeling like hammered shit by 4pm. The titles alone were a give-away that a miserable day was ahead – Forgiven, In Between Days, Steel City – and it was with some relief that news filtered through that the 5.30 showing, Right At Your Door, was a fast-moving thriller.

Forgiven is also a thriller, of sorts, but a weighty one cut from cloth nabbed from John Sayles’ favourite tailors. Debut writer/director Paul Fitzgerald also stars as Peter Miles, a thirtysomething DA who decides to take a shot at the Senate when a crusty colleague steps aside. Powering his campaign on his rep as a hard-but-fair crime-stopper who’s also a committed family man, he’s hardly out the gates before catastrophe strikes: Ronald Bradley (Russell Hornsby), an African-American he sent down five years ago, is given a last-minute reprieve as the needles are jabbed into his arms. New evidence casts doubt on Miles’ professional ability and, far worse, his integrity.

As first-time features go – especially first-time features with a sizeable ensemble cast and a stack of serious issues (race, class, religion, morality) to play with – Forgiven is strong, forcibly channelling its various plot strands and complex themes into a digestible narrative. It’s neatly played, too, Fitzgerald striking just the right balance of decency, arrogance and vulnerability and Hornsby radiating a righteous anger so hot it cracks the lens. That Forgiven pales in comparison to Sayles’ best work is no great offence, though it does do itself a disservice by occasionally teetering on the edge of melodrama.

In Between Days does what it does very well, but there’s only so many people who’ll pay to watch a film that spends 90 minutes going nowhere very slowly. There have been wounded snails that have moved forward with more purpose.

Very much a mood piece that’s just a little too obsessed with hanging precise, perfect images on its oh-so-slender plot-thread, it tracks the distinctly lovable Aimie (Jiseon Kim), a Korean teenager who’s just moved to America with her mum, as she schleps around a snowy town with friend/unrequited love Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). Concerned with repressed emotions and subtle actions rather than getting from A to B to P for Plot, it’s tempting to say that nothing happens at all. It does, of course, and there are sharp observations on national and personal identity if you screw up your eyes really, really tight and stare really, really close. Take your time – the film certainly does.

After also doing a little schlepping across a snowy landscape, Total Film settled down in its horribly uncomfortable seat (would it hurt to provide some padding?) and took the brace position ready for Brian Jun’s Steel City. Good movie – a melancholy, frequently raw take on male relationships as a father (John Heard) and two sons (Thomas Guiry, Clayne Crawford) muddle their way towards some kind of reconciliation after years of estrangement. Set in a rough-and-ready steel town in South Illinois, it comes as no surprise to learn that Jun spent his formative years there: his feel for the harsh environment and its working-class inhabitants is plain to see. A touch of sentiment creeps in at the very end as a clunky slo-mo montage hits a seriously bum note, but this remains one of the stronger movies in competition.

Right At Your Door brings fond memories of the criminally underseen Miracle Mile, one of the finest straight-to-video movies of the ’80s. The first 20 minutes pass in a flurry of jagged cuts as Brad (Rory Cochrane) runs in panicky circles, frantically hollering. The reason for his distress is all too real, downtown LA finding itself blitzed by a series of bombs, one detonation going off after the other. Unable to reach his wife (Mary McCormack) as phone lines clog and roads choke with traffic, he can only sweat and gawp as plumes of black smoke engulf the city. Then comes the killer: these are ‘dirty’ bombs, introducing a deadly virus that attacks the respiratory system. Brad has no choice but to barricade himself in his house and tape up the cracks, the sanitised news bulletins offering a false hope that soon evaporates as the government takes drastic measures.

Starting and ending well but sagging alarmingly in the middle, Right At Your Door is more than a little flawed but, unlike many of the films on show here, it has undoubted commercial potential. Give it a go if and when it makes it to the UK. At its best, it recalls George Romero’s (again criminally underseen) infection-flick The Crazies.

Stumbling into the fading day in a somewhat agitated state, another shock was on the cards: a text message from Neil Marshall revealed he’d brought forward our meet time to 7pm (it was now 7.11). Obviously the man needed a stiff drink after doing two days of press for The Descent.

Arriving at 7.45pm to find Marshall ensconced in a booth with Shauna Macdonald and Nora-Jane Noone, all three nursing vividly hued cocktails, Total Film ordered a glass of white wine. Sensible. Any thoughts of a civilised night immediately went out the window, however, when Marshall ordered two shots of Jagermeister, one can of Red Bull and two pint glasses. Pouring half the Red Bull into each glass, he promptly handed one over to Total Film with the insistence that the shot glass of Jagermeister was lowered inside ready for the depth-charger from hell. Three more came and went during the course of the drunken evening, separating a long line of beers. Clearly feeling sorry for Total Film’s plight (you try keeping pace with a six-footer from Newcastle), Macdonald and Noone gamely participated in the last two rounds, sinking Jagermeisters of their own.

Much of the night is now but a painful hum in the base of the brain, but remembered highlights include Marshall and your skunk-drunk reporter forming a fearsome doubles team on the pool table (“hit the balls hard enough and something will go in” being the helmer’s inspired tactic) and Macdonald revealing that she has a “nicely shaped head” for reasons that can never be revealed in print. There also figured a 10-minute comparison of birth marks that out-did the scars scene in Jaws (again, not in print) and the revelation that the follically-challenged horror director used to boast a head of fine, silky curls. Now that’s scary.

Pissed shenanigans aside, Marshall did talk about The Descent’s new ending for the US, revealing that the action cuts as Macdonald pulls over in the car, screaming bloody murder. The decidedly downbeat coda in the UK version has been excised for the ‘theatrical’ cut in America, but will be available on the DVD. The movie will come out in the summer and is opening on an impressive 750 screens, with plans to snowball the release if all goes well. Judging from the audiences’ ecstatic response to the Sundance screenings, it’s a given.

Day 6 - Tuesday 24 January 2006

Ah, the one we’ve all been waiting for: Wristcutters: A Love Story. Call Total Film a sick puppy, but this was the title that leapt out upon first seeing the schedule, thoughts of Harold And Maude and the opening credits of Ginger Snaps plastering a twisted grin across your in-need-of-psychiatry reporter’s frost-bitten face.

Starring a suitably torpid Patrick Fugit as Zia, our wrist-opening hero, the bulk of the movie takes place in a numb, glum afterlife – a universe that’s populated by folks who have offed themselves. It’s really not much different to rural America, squalid motels and shabby bars springing out of scrubland. Hell, the inhabitants are even doing the same menial jobs, flipping burgers, mopping floors and polishing glasses as Kurt Cobain drones on the jukebox. The plot, such as it is, sees Fugit team up with Russian rocker Eugene (Shea Whigham) and beautiful hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon). Together they embark on a quest to find both the “people in charge” and Desiree (Leslie Bibb), Zia’s girlfriend back in the land of the living (it transpires she killed herself a month after Zia, unable to carry on without him). En route they bump into all manner of oddballs, Tom Waits among them, and Zia inevitably falls for Mikal as the days drift past.

Feeling like a half-hour short stretched to 105 minutes, Wristcutters nonetheless has plenty to recommend it, not least DoP Vanja Cernjul’s dusty, low-key lighting which offers us a world that’s been bled of primary colours. The humour is dark, tasteless but not too tasteless, and Sossamon floats through the picture like a firefly – a splash of luminosity across the grey, grey skies.

The day’s other movie, New York romantic comedy Pucinni For Beginners, was enlivened by a bizarre little melee at the concession stand beforehand. At the centre of the huddle stood a man ordering a slice of bacon and pineapple pizza. Was it Brad Pitt? Tom Cruise? Ryan Gosling, perhaps, whose antsy turn in Half Nelson is by far the best male performance in competition. No, it was film critic Roger Ebert, the US Bazza Norman. Kind of. Lapping up the adulation as younger American critics courted his opinions with shiny eyes, he then grinned like the proverbial moggy from Cheshire when everyone started cooing over his orangey-red Express Press Pass – about 50 steps up from everyone else’s shoddy pale blue number. “Hey, I earned it guys,” came his response. “This is my 25th year. I was coming when it wasn’t even called Sundance – it was the Park City Festival.” Hard to argue with that.

Puccini For Beginners resembles an elongated episode of Sex In The City, the protagonists sporting smart clothes and even smarter mouths as they ride the relationships merry-go-round, yakking all the while. It opens with Elizabeth Reaser’s likeable Allegra waitressing at a party, only to find herself confronted by the last two guests she’d ever want to attend to. At least at the same time. One is Columbia professor Philip (Justin Kirk), her boyfriend. The other is sometime glass-blower (!) Grace (Gretchen Mol), her girlfriend. Bad? Worse, actually – Philip and Grace were together for several years before both falling into bed with Allegra on the rebound. The rest of the movie shows us exactly how this gobsmacked trio got to be in their present predicament, jaws on carpet as a roomful of socialites look on.

Written and directed by Maria Maggenti, the talent behind 1995’s The Incredibly True Story Of Two Girls In Love, Puccini For Beginners freshens up the rom-com genre by presenting sexuality as polymorphous. But while its sweeping away of restrictive gender identities – bi, gay, straight – is a welcome development, viewers will find themselves feeling they’ve danced this rom-com dance one too many times before. Who will wind up with whom? Can true love out? Will the characters negotiate their way over yet another obstacle? Add in the obligatory gaggle of snappy-speaking friends and a glimmering New York skyline and every box is ticked. That said, the performances are breezy and it’s an accomplished enough piece of filmmaking, the will-o'-the-wisp tone proving welcome in a Dramatic Competition that has put the emphasis on Dramatic.

Taking up a mighty three hours of Total Film’s day (every minute counts at this particular festival), the “talent spots” with the guys and gals behind Art School Confidential threw up some choice moments. Looking a little red-cheeked as she discussed her nudity scenes in Terry Zwigoff’s movie (she’s a vicar’s daughter, after all), the radiant Sophia Myles plucked out the anecdote of the day. “I had a stiff gin and tonic beforehand,” she said. “Then I went up to Terry and said, ‘My agent did tell you about the whole third nipple thing, right?’ I’ve never seen colour drain from a face like that!”

The film’s star, Max ‘son of Anthony’ Minghella, later weighed in with his own Zwigoff tale. “Every day Terry would come onto set and go [launches into a pitch-perfect whine] ‘I don’t know what I want, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to make a movie…’ He actually knows exactly what he wants, exactly what he’s doing and exactly how to make a movie! What he’s doing is creating an environment whereby actors feel free to try anything they want ‘cos they think ‘this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing!”

Zwigoff, meanwhile, was in subdued mood, saying, “I got about an hour’s sleep last night. My wife was partying. I kept going, ‘Look, I gotta get some sleep – I’ve got all this press tomorrow.’ But it’s a big vacation for her. We’ve got a hot tub and a Jacuzzi, and she has all her friends here. They’ve got bottles of wine…” Hiding behind tinted specs, he was quick to brush away obvious comparisons to his 2001 movie, Ghost World. “I thought of this as a completely different thing,” he said. “This film is a lot more ambitious and goes to a darker place. Of course, people don’t like that. They want it to be light and silly so they can forget their troubles.”

Thankfully, producer (and supporting player) John Malkovich wasn’t scared off by the despair. “Nobody knows what’s going to sell, so any arguments are hypothetical and really rather silly,” he said. “And if you’re that worried about selling a movie, I’d say don’t do a Terry Zwigoff movie produced by Mr Mudd [Malkovich’s company] and written by Daniel Clowes.” But surely fellow production company United Artists had fears? Malkovich rubbed at his bristled chin. “Hey, they have shareholders and they wanna make sure they have an audience. But Terry’s audience is a smart-alec audience, who are very difficult to poll. The test screenings were pretty tortuous. I understand what they are and why they do it, but…” A roll of the eyes and a snort of derision says more than words ever could.

That’s all, folks. Tune in tomorrow for tales of drunken debauchery involving a certain Neil Marshall and his leading ladies in The Descent. How can I predict the events of Wednesday night on the Tuesday before? Er, because it’s now actually Thursday and this diary is two days late.

Day 5 - Monday 23 January 2006

‘I guess it’s just a case of boys and their toys.’ Joey Lauren Adams is getting involved with one of the hottest debates of this year’s festival – why men still dominate Hollywood and hog all the ‘event’ pictures. Now more than ever, for Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) has lost her way and Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact) is still recovering from having lost the plot with Pay It Forward. ‘But it’s also that most women don’t want to make those kind of pictures,’ Adams continues, packing down a cheese omelette and fries (where does she put it? as grandma would say) before tucking into a dessert of red Marlboros. ‘I certainly don’t. I want to write about what I know, which is why I made a regional movie about a woman.’

That woman is played by Ashley Judd. The film is Come Early Morning, an ‘emotionally biographical’ tale about a southern woman who’s trying to take her crumpled life and iron it out into some kind of order. Total Film hasn’t actually seen it yet – Thursday, we promise – but there’s no doubting that Adams gets five stars for perseverance. ‘It took me five years to get the funding,’ she sighs. ‘People took meetings with me just to stare; they couldn’t believe the blonde chick from Chasing Amy was trying to make a film. They had no intention of funding it but they had to at least take a look. I was paraded around like a circus pony.’

Adams’ writer/director debut has been selected for the Dramatic Competition, and is one of the 53 movies directed by women that are playing at the Festival this year. As Robert Redford rightly points out, one of the things that Sundance is about is giving a voice to minority groups, whether they’re marginalised by race, gender or sexuality. A glance at this year’s line-up proves the Sundance Institute has been successful in providing a platform – build it and they will come – and suggests the talent is out there, ready to capitalise, if it can just be granted a shot. Even so, there’s a long way to go ‘til the Sundance revolution rises over Hollywood: of the 250 top-grossing movies of 2004, only 5% were helmed by women.

Okay, enough of the serious stuff. Total Film finds itself duty bound to report on a couple of trends that are bugging the shit out of right-minded filmgoers at this year’s festival. Number one is the cinema stewards’ frankly idiotic tendency to bellow, ‘Okay, we’re loading… loading theatre one!’ whenever they (finally) open the doors to let viewers park their freezing arses on seats. As if everyone didn’t feel like cattle already… And number two is the audiences’ staggering ability to never grow tired of repeating the same gag as the opening credits roll on any film showing at the Eccles Center. It plays something like this. Look, there’s an actor’s name on the screen – let’s burst into spontaneous applause because that very same actor is sat in the cordoned off section at the front of the cinema, here to bask in the glow of the movie’s world premiere. Look, there’s another actor’s name – thunderous applause, yells, whistles, etc. And so on and so forth, right up until the director’s name floats into view in the centre of the screen. Fair enough, you might say… and you’d be right. But here’s the thing: at some point during the whole credits rolling thing, somewhere in between the appearance of the film company logos and the names of cast and crew, up pops a credit for Dolby Digital. Cue a handful of smart-arses cheering and clapping, followed by riotous laughter across the auditorium. It was funny the first time. IT IS NOT FUNNY ON THE 11TH DAMN TIME, ESPECIALLY AS MOST OF THE PEOPLE WATCHING THE DAMN MOVIE ARE ALSO SAT IN THEIR DAMN SEATS FOR THE 11TH DAMN TIME, THUS RULING OUT ANY DEFENCE OF SPONTANEITY. Sorry, had to get that out of my system. So much anger. Blame the queuing in the snow, stalactites hanging from testicles.

Right, movies. That’s what we’re here for, after all. The day started well with Half Nelson, the first truly decent film to screen in the Dramatic Competition. Directed with economy, vitality and a keen observational eye by Ryan Fleck, this is a feature-length version of his 2004 Special Jury Prize-winning short Gowanus, Brooklyn. It stars Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, an idealistic history teacher whose edgy, eccentric behaviour and unpatronising manner have won him the respect of the kids at a tough inner-city school. This is the cool teacher you always wanted, the guy who turns up to work in a creased shirt and half-mast tie, ready to spit wisecracks from either side of a wad of gum. Outside the classroom, however, he’s a barely-able-to-function crack addict, snorting away his disillusionment at a world where only his kids keep him going. His life pivots – just a fraction – when 13-year-old pupil Drey (Shareeka Epps) finds him semi-comatose in the locker room toilets after an evening basketball game. Not without troubles of her own, she enters into a fragile friendship with ‘Teach’, who becomes her regular lift home when her mom’s pulling double shifts and her pop’s just not interested. Filmed on handheld HD cam and comprised almost entirely of close-ups and medium shots, the focus shallow as Fleck zooms in tight on the tiniest details, Half Nelson has the kind of scuzzy beauty that’s rarely seen outside a Bukowski poem. It’s brilliantly performed, right down to the smallest part, and there’s not a character on show who’s anything but fully-rounded – living and breathing. This is a film about things large and small that are ill in the world, but it’s never didactic. It’s an ode to friendship, but it’s never sentimental. And it’s all put together with force and skill, but it never bullies the viewer or draws attention to its considerable craft. Expect prizes to come its way.

Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential, on the other hand, was something of a disappointment. Reteaming with Ghost World-scribe Daniel Clowes, who’s spun out a script from a three-page comic he once scrawled, it follows art student Jerome (Max Minghella, channelling Jason Schwartzmann to good effect) as he embarks on his freshman year at a prestigious art school. Sure of his talent and determined to be the ‘one in 100’ pupil who goes on to make a living from his gift, he becomes increasingly embittered when it’s the less skilled students who bag the acclaim… and a jock jerk with joke ability wins the girl of his dreams. Racing out the gate like a greyhound sporting a day-glo coat, Art School Confidential scores hit after hit by mercilessly satirising its protagonists’ pretentious milieu. This is a world that Clowes knows, and it shows. Then, about two-thirds in, events take a screeching wrong turn, the sardonic jokes drying up as events get darker and darker and the pace gets slower and sloooower. It’s intentional but it’s a misjudgement, the movie unable to bear the dramatic heft that’s been suddenly thrust upon it. Please guys, stick to the funny stuff.

Stephanie Daley is not a film to watch at 10.30pm after a very long day and two large glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. But such is festival life – viewing Clint’s Mystic River or Michael Haneke’s The Time Of The Wolf at 8.30am with a stinking hangover isn’t ideal either, but that’s what the Cannes schedule demanded of critics (well, maybe not the stinking hangover part). A drama that draws its juice from two powerful central performances, it has at its core a contrived conceit: a pregnant psychologist (Tilda Swinton) who just last year gave birth to a stillborn child must investigate the case of Stephanie Daley (Amber Tamblyn), a 16-year-old who’s suspected of deliberately killing her unborn child. Stephanie claims this cannot be the case because she never realised she was pregnant. Much mumbling and soul-searching and crying ensue, the women eventually learning to draw from each other’s experiences as they pool their grief. The thriller dynamic, subdued though it is, doesn’t really belong here at all, and anyone who emerged from Vera Drake thinking it was a tad on the miserable side will struggle with the relentlessly downbeat tone of Stephanie Daley. Huge plaudits for Tamblyn and Swinton, though. Fans of Timothy Hutton (there are a few of us) will also be pleased to see him handed a half-decent role as Swinton’s struggling husband.

Half way through the festival, it’s time to take stock. The general feeling in Park City, right here and right now, is that this year’s selection is weak. This is especially true of the Dramatic Competition, with many critics mumbling that the overall standard in the documentary comps is higher. Black Gold (an investigation of the global coffee industry), Wordplay (a study of crossword-solving obsessives), Wide Awake (one man’s chronicle of his insomnia and 24/7 creativity), Thin (an examination of eating disorders) and God Grew Tired Of Us (tracking Sudanese refugees) are just five of the buzz docs. There are several others but it’s late and your trusty reporter has to be up for an 8.30am screening.

Little Miss Sunshine, reported upon earlier in this festival diary, remains the firm audience favourite so far, but a special mention should go to Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind follow-up, The Science Of Sleep. Screening to a packed house on Sunday night, those who got a first look at Gondry’s inner-space sci-fi flick (its plot is far too odd to go into here) have been universal in their acclaim, the general feeling being that it out-weirds Eternal Sunshine and is all the better for it. Total Film’s annoyingly rigid schedule on that particular day meant sitting it out, but a full report will follow shortly. (Quick aside: The Science Of Sleep party has also been the best so far. Sundance shindigs are notoriously limp affairs, but this cosy little bash had a warm vibe to go with the chilled wine).

Final mentions: a handful of films that have already received a UK release have also screened here, with Factotum, Battle In Heaven and the soon-to-be-released-but-seen-by-UK-critics-bloody-ages-ago The Proposition all getting nods of approval. Neil Marshall’s The Descent also scuttled into the spotlight with a midnight screening at the Egyptian Theatre last night. The screaming could be heard half way down Main Street, and saucer-eyed US viewers have today been echoing us Brits in their response: scariest fuckin’ movie in years, man.

Day 4 - Sunday 22 January 2006

Hundreds of movies to choose from, 16 selected for the Dramatic Competition. They’ve gotta be good, right? Great, even. The Sundance Film Festival Film Guide (snappy title) would certainly have us believe so, heralding the line-up as ‘some of the most exciting and highly anticipated films in the world’.

Then you watch Stay. First you begin to wonder what the hundreds of movies that got rejected are like (just how bad can cinema get?). And then you lose the will to live.

Written and directed by comic Bob Goldthwait, the man behind 1992’s Shakes The Clown, Stay at least features a winning performance by Renee Zellweger clone Melinda Page Hamilton. She plays a primary school teacher, sweet as cherry pie. Her life is perfect: nice-guy fiancé, loving parents, cosy house. Oh, and one more thing: she once gave a blowjob to her dog. But it was a few years ago and she didn’t swallow, spitting it into the sink instead. Aaaaaanyway… our cherubic heroine foolishly decides she must rid herself of all secrets before she gets married – a good relationship is based on honesty and trust, after all – so she blurts it out to her intended. He flips. Her family finds out. They flip. Everything goes to shit. Then mom dies of a brain aneurism. The end.

Trust us, the bestiality is the least offensive thing on show here. Shot on shittycam (or Sony HD Camera, if you want the technical term) by a director who has the visual eye of a mole with cataracts, it lurches in tone between gross out comedy, twee romance and wrist-slittingly sombre drama. Still, it at least boasts the best/worst line of dialogue in the festival thus far, a spiralling argument between the betrothed ending with hubby-to-be calling the love of his life a ‘dog-blowing cunt’. Nice.

The Illusionist, playing in the Premieres section, was a little better. The period story of a great magician (Ed Norton, burning holes through steel with those miraculous eyes) who finds himself on the wrong side of the crown-prince (Rufus Sewell) and the chief of police (Paul Giamatti) in 1900 Vienna, it looks great but crawls along like a woman who’s just been sawn in half. Luckily there’s a rather more healthy lady at the centre of things, Jessica Biel’s Duchess von Teschen – fiancée to the prince, soul mate to our magician - giving audiences something to look at beside the exquisite set design and dark, silky cinematography. Hard to see a real audience for this one despite the star names; and magicians, especially, will find themselves wishing they were attempting to escape a water-torture chamber rather than sitting through this. Why? Because most of the illusions are achieved by the tarnished magic of CGI. And as any magician knows, there’s nothing worse than relying on a camera trick.

A short Q&A followed the movie, a flippant Paul Giamatti stealing the show from snore-bore helmer Neil Burger and smiley Biel. Asked what he saw in the script that lured him into playing the Chief Inspector, he responded, ‘I got to smoke a pipe and wear a great hat.’ Chances are he’s not joking.

And that was that for Day 4. Yes, two movies and a Q&A is your lot, unless you count eave-dropping on a power lunch as a young bearded director pitched his ideas and filmmaking ethos to six or seven suits. (Hopefully they were as impressed as Total Film: if this guy knows half as much about life as he does about cinema, he’s gonna be the new Truffaut.) Where are the parties, the celebrities and the in-depth coverage of the really exciting movies? Well, this bloody column has to be written sometime…

Day 3 - Saturday 21 January 2006

The sun was out this morning, bouncing off packed snow as Total Film ate breakfast with Mia Goldman, director of Open Window. Chewing on eggs, sunny side up, and a side of fried potatoes, she spent much of our time together lavishing praise on Robin Tunney and Joel Edgerton, the leads in her hard-hitting debut – a nuanced exploration of the after-effects of an horrific rape.

Turns out she was right to be so effusive. For while the film itself is undoubtedly flawed, making several misjudgements in tone (usually when Cybill Shepherd’s brash mother enters the frame), the central performances are terrific: Edgerton’s frustration is palpable, his tender sympathy slipping into confused, helpless rage, while Tunney’s exploration of hurt, fragility and an ultimately unbreakable inner strength is the stuff awards are made of.

Open Window is one of just two films Total Film caught today, the rest of the day being taken up by interviews with the cast and director of opening film Friends With Money and a decidedly strange evening spent with our old friend Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent).

More of the Marshall chronicles later. First let’s give a few lines to Wordplay, a magnificent documentary playing in the, er, documentary section. Fans of Spellbound should make a beeline for this. Fascinating, suspenseful and raucously witty, Patrick Creadon’s doc introduces a host of social misfits with one thing in common: a genius for putting the right letters in the white squares. The absolute cream of the 50 million or so Americans who puzzle over crosswords every day, they can whiz through the New York Times’ revered daily challenge in four minutes flat. Even better, they’re all driven by an intense desire to be the best… which makes for tense viewing when they convene for the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a weekend convention that culminates with the top three players taking to the stage, marker pens in hand, for a grand final in front of 500 beady-eyed colleagues. Yet while the competitive aspect is the hook, Wordplay also finds time to examine the history of the crossword and demonstrate how big brained wordsmiths construct their fiendish riddles. It also explores the human attraction of solving such enigmas and how the lessons learned can be applied to daily life. Hell, Bill Clinton (one of several celebrity talking heads) even admits he used his crossword tactics to tackle problems in the White House.

But enough about watching movies, even good ones. What’s Marshall playing at in Park City is the more pressing matter. The answer, of course, is simple: he’s here to plug The Descent as it gears up for its US release. The buzz in town is hot for this one – and so it should be, as UK audiences can already testify – with a packed out premiere expected at the Egyptian Theatre on Monday night. Or make that Tuesday morning, the film kicking off at midnight. Catching up with Marshall for a few sly drinks, Total Film was granted the good fortune of meeting up with his new friends at Rogue Pictures and Focus Features, the US backers for his $15million follow-up to The Descent, apoco-drama Doomsday. First thing to report is that these guys are not your average Hollywood moguls, hands on the key to the edit suite, eyes on the box office. Their love of film and their admiration for Marshall’s work was unmistakeable, and their track record (Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener, Broken Flowers) supports their words when they say that it’s gonna be Neil’s way, all the way.

Next thing to report is that they know how to have a good time. Settling down in an extraordinarily poncy –sorry, fancy - restaurant in Main Street (they wanted something more casual but everything was booked up), two bottles of wine were promptly ordered for $200 a pop. Lovely… except the white was as flavoursome as a thimble of gnat’s piss. Duly sending it back and choosing another bottle, such is the customer’s want, there followed a remarkable scene in which the ridiculously prissy maitre d’ proceeded to pour his own glass, swirl, snort and declare it in fine fettle. Worse, he then launched into a tremulous, frankly patronising speech about the differences between a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay. Result? A proud walkout. Problem: everywhere else was booked out. Solution: back to one of the hotel rooms, where our American friends rustled up a makeshift meal consisting of tacos, salad, bacon and muffins. The Descent producer Christian Colson weighed in with his speciality – scrambled eggs – and it was all washed down with wines, lagers and whiskey from the cavernous fridge.

During the course of the evening, producer Andrew Rona assured Total Film that he viewed Doomsday as the start of a beautiful friendship, even labelling Marshall as ‘the British Peter Jackson’. His good taste was confirmed when he announced that he’s also about to work with Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem For A Dream) and Alexandre Aja (Switchblade Romance, The Hills Have Eyes) on their new projects.

But let’s end with some star power: Jennifer Aniston and Catherine Keener were on good form as they settled down in front of a fire for a chat, the flames soon getting that Park City chill out of their bones. Stars of Nicole Holofcener’s Friends With Money, they happily championed indie cinema between slurps of their Starbucks’ coffee. Both looked fantastic, but were quick to point out that they identified with their characters’ insecurities in the movie. ‘Of course,’ said Aniston. ‘I’ve had moments of low self-esteem; it’s part of everybody. Just because people put me on top of the wedding cake, which is not my choice, or I’ve been given this image … it doesn’t mean it’s who I am or what I believe. But it definitely gets easier as you get older, because you find peace with yourself. I wanna get to the place where Shirley MacLaine is right now. She’s just like, ‘fuck it…’’

Keener, meanwhile, was quick to downplay the Oscar buzz that’s currently surrounding her portrayal of writer Harper Lee in Capote. ‘I don’t track it,’ she said. So she doesn’t care for Oscar? ‘Look, if an award is given by your peers or by people you respect, then it does mean something. But if you feel you’ve gotten it by doing press or being political, then it cheapens it.’ This is one lady who won’t be canvassing votes at Hollywood’s old people’s homes…

Day 2 - Friday 20 January 2006

Okay, here’s how the festival works (from the press’ point of view). Littered across Park City are nine or 10 venues, ranging from the grand, comfy opulence of the Eccles Center (1,270 seats) to the bloody uncomfortable sparsity of the Yarrow Hotel (two screens, 150 seats apiece). Unfortunately, all of the press screenings are held at the Yarrow, rows of straight-backed chairs laid out with the rigid formality of a school assembly.

Go to the press screenings and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get in, the catch being it’s like watching a movie in a church hall and sure to screw with your lower back. Attend the public screenings and you’re risking rejection, the press being allocated a small amount of tickets (only 25 for the Eccles, or five for the Racquet Club, which seats 600). To stand any chance of grabbing one of said tickets, you need to be in line a good hour before the picture starts. You then join the public queue and stand in the snow for an hour ‘til the film begins… or usually longer, as the movies start anything from 10 to 40 minutes late.

The system is far from perfect, Park City struggling to cope with the festival’s rapid expansion in the last few years. As Robert Redford is fond of recalling, he struggled to get 300 people to attend the festival’s opening year, desperately handing out leaflets to tempt people inside the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street. Now, 45,000 people descend on Park City (population 7,000). The good folk at the Sundance Institute have done what they can, introducing new theatres (this year a sports center has been turned into a makeshift cinema for the duration) and providing a superb bus service to shuttle festival goers from cinema to cinema. But, even so, it’s a crush, with so much time spent travelling and queuing that it’s hard to see more than three films a day… not ideal when there’s 120 features and a ton of shorts to choose from.

Total Film managed to catch three films today, with any thoughts of going for a bloody impressive fourth cut short by a hastily arranged power dinner with the gentle folk of film distributors Optimum Releasing. This involved drinking too much brown ale and thrashing head honchos Will Clarke and Danny Perkins at pool… not for the first time, it should be added.

The first of the three movies was the terribly titled A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, which sees Robert Downey Jr’s haunted screenwriter return to his home patch of Astoria, Queens, to visit his dying father (Chazz Palminteri). Flipflopping between past and present, the action frequently slipping back to the mid-80s as Jr recalls his days of being wild, Saints has been dismissed in some quarters as having nothing new to offer. True, we’ve seen these posturing, vulnerable characters before, while a similar structure’s been used in films as diverse as Once Upon A Time In America and Now And Then. But there’s no taking away the authenticity of writer/director Dito Montiel’s personal remembrances, the edgy, inarticulate dialogue spat with a rare veracity by a faultless cast. Downey nails the neuroses of a traumatised man confronting ghosts from his past, and Rosario Dawson sizzles as the grown-up version of his first love. It’s the teens, though, that steal the show, each of the kids operating with a coiled energy that recalls Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s dangerously charismatic turn in last year’s Mysterious Skin. Dark, angry, violent… and sneak-up-on-you emotional.

The second film, also in the Dramatic Competition, was writer/director/star Hadjii’s Somebodies, a comedy about a boozin’, womanisin’, all-round-party-lovin’ African-American college student called Scottie (played by Hadjii himself). Over 89 strained, distinctly amateurish minutes, he undergoes a journey of self-discovery, leaving behind life’s simple sins as he stumbles towards the light. Very funny in a handful of places but a wash-out overall, it’s got straight-to-DVD written all over it… and not just because it’s shot on eye-scratching HD.

The highlight of the day – and perhaps even the festival – then came in the form of the radiant Little Miss Sunshine. Playing to a

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